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When B/R Matchday returned last week to kick off the Champions League quarterfinals, the show had changed. Kate Abdo, Stu Holden, and Steve Nash were all on the same set for the first time, along with Maurice Edu. (Holden and Nash previously filmed from Los Angeles while Abdo hosted from Atlanta.) Graphics had been improved so that Holden could demonstrate strategic intricacies in real time. And the broadcast struck a new balance between social-focused segments and traditional linear television. “In some ways,” Abdo said, “it was like starting from scratch.”
Abdo—a Manchester native with experience working in Germany and covering the World Cup—is familiar with the traditional way of covering the game. When she met with Bleacher Report Football executive producer Travis Rettke before signing, she was instantly intrigued by the challenge of Americanizing coverage—making it more social, more emotional, more cultural. “A lot of the time, you find a formula that works for a sport and you stick to it,” she said. “I appreciated someone trying to take a fresh approach.”
TNT’s new soccer program debuted in August to criticism from soccer diehards. While Turner Sports was putting a majority of games behind its new B/R Live paywall, the studio show didn’t offer exhaustive coverage of all the action and lacked energy. Rettke was trying to “redefine the culture of the game in America,” and while he was ready to rub some traditionalists the wrong way in an effort to bring in new fans, he also was willing to accept changes. “By no means do we have it solved right now,” he said back then. “We are basically a startup.” By Matchday 2, tweaks were already in place.
In the fall, Abdo and Rettke would return to Turner’s studios on Thursdays to observe TNT’s Inside the NBA, a show that has ridden its loose style to nine Emmy awards. Abdo sat in the control room, headphones on, studying the show until it wrapped up past 2 a.m. Afterwards, she would would discuss with Rettke. We want to appear as comfortable as they do, they told each other. Rettke also stressed that he wanted to keep trying new things, even if that would make it tougher for Abdo to smoothly host the program, especially given the Champions League’s stop-and-start schedule.
Abdo had never been involved in developing a new program before. A self-described perfectionist, she had to accept a growing process. She objected to some of the show’s social-focused elements, admitting that her view of TV as a standalone product was outdated compared to the way her bosses were thinking about generating conversation across platforms. “The struggle initially was more about getting to a point where I feel we’re putting out a show that I think is really good,” she said.
Without years of earning fans’ trust, B/R Matchday was open to criticism that having Nash as an analyst wasn’t respecting the sport, or that they weren’t covering enough action. A sequence that might appear light-hearted on a show like Inside the NBA could come off as lazy or disrespectful on a new entrant.
Now the show is doing more to earn loyalty. It’s still aiming for fun—there are no ties on set and lots of sneakers; analysts chitchat over highlights; and Nash doesn’t hide his Tottenham fandom—but there’s more time for deep tactical talk, too. With only four teams remaining and the finals around the corner, serious discussion should be even more present moving forward.
The way Rettke looks at it, WarnerMedia (which owns Turner Sports and Bleacher Report) did enter this season with some cache via its B/R Football brand. Rettke said B/R generates the second most social media engagements on soccer content worldwide. On TV, match broadcasts are up 58% over last year on Fox Sports 1 through the Round of 16. (TNT is in about five million more homes, for what it’s worth.) In creating a show designed for both new soccer fans and lifers, it’s a matter of balance.
On-site coverage of the Champions League final in Madrid is currently on the table, as are discussions about whether the show will take place from one studio or two next season. For now, Rettke says, the analysts are hitting their stride and settling in—to him, that means it’s time to shake things up again.
Five Analysts Who Could Follow Steve Nash's Lead
In honor of Steve Nash’s soccer-only role at Turner Sports, here are the five analysts I’d love to see cover a sport besides their own.
5. John McEnroe on the NBA
One of the best tennis announcers going, McEnroe is also a long-suffering Knicks fan who could provide a unique window into the complex personality clashes that make basketball the perfect social media sport. To start, let him talk about the officials as TNT’s rules expert.
4. Tony Romo on golf
This one’s obvious. Technically, Romo was actually a golf commentator before sending media evaluators swooning as the NFL’s hottest attraction. The only downside would be that calling tournament events would prevent him from trying to play in them.
3. Troy Aikman on WWE
How’s that for corporate synergy, FOX? Plus, Aikman has some experience with wrestlers. “They talk about that wrestling, what these guys go through, and the punishment that they take, it’s pretty remarkable,” Aikman said to Joe Buck during the fourth quarter of the Eagles’ blowout over the Giants on a Thursday night last year, as part of a lengthy diatribe that seemed to stem from a decade-old Rent-A-Center commercial.
2. Bill Walton on MLB
No, Walton is not a fan of baseball, or “a bunch of out-of-shape guys standing around, scratching themselves, taking steroids and waiting for the game of life to come to them,” as he called it in 2014. But imagine the big man with nearly three hours on air to kill.
1. Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir on the NFL
They might even defend the Buccaneers jerseys.
• NBA games on ESPN and ABC averaged just under two million viewers this year, flat with last year. TNT, meanwhile, was down 12%.
• Kevin Seifert makes math interesting in a story on formulas being used to create fair NFL schedules.
• The Athletic subscribers can relive Tiger Woods’ historic Masters win from inside CBS’ production truck.
• If you’re at all curious about the world of pirated game streams, this dive from Front Office Sports is for you.
• Yes, we’re still talking about LeBron James, because he’s considering talking on Inside the NBA.
• ESPN has hired Peyton Manning to … host a new ESPN+ series celebrating the NFL’s 100th season.
• Honestly, I hope you don’t click this link about “ESPN’s fartgate,” but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I left it off.
• Ex-ESPN host Adnan Virk has a new podcast with Mike Lombardi.
• Here comes a new, 24-hour sports betting network.
THANK YOU, INTERNET…
...for raising nearly $2 million to rebuild three historically black churches.